John Burnett / NPR
U.S. Customs and Border Protection—the nation’s largest law enforcement agency—is attempting to reform itself. Washington spends $13 billion on border control and immigration enforcement, more than every other federal law enforcement force combined. Yet the huge agency—with 56,000 gun-toting agents—is dogged by complaints that too many of them will take a bribe or use excessive force and avoid consequences.
An independent review panel named by the Homeland Security secretary faulted CBP for its “broken disciplinary process.”
Under the leadership of Customs Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske, who was confirmed in March 2014, the agency is trying to bring about more transparency and accountability, and train its personnel to de-escalate violent encounters.Agents who work on the border every day contend that it’s unlike any environment in American law enforcement.
Controlling A Culture With Deadly Use-Of-Force
On a hot October day, a patrol boat speeds along the Rio Grande between curtains of thick Carrizo cane. Mullet fish flop in the muddy water and white egrets fly ahead.
“All kinds of people throw rocks at us, even little kids still in Pampers, they see us and lob rocks at us,” boat captain Agent Omar Puente says. “There’s been areas in Weslaco [Texas] where we were parked and 10 guys show up at the banks and throw rocks at you. It’s a thing to do I guess.”
While Puente steers, agent Guillermo Mata scans the riverbank, shouldering an M-4 assault rifle. He’s asked, how does the agency’s new emphasis on avoiding use of force affect his job?
“I guess the main goal would be to try to remove yourself from the [rock-throwing] area first,” he says. “That’s personally the change that I’ve seen.”
CBP knew it had a use-of-force problem. It asked the respected Police Executive Research Forum, a best-practices policy group, to look at 67 fatal shootings by border agents between January 2010 and October 2012.
The forum concluded that some agents were firing at moving vehicles and rock throwers even though they posed no lethal threat. In an attempt to reduce shootings, CBP has handed down stricter rules on use of force in 2014. What’s more, the agency has created interactive training scenarios that mimic confrontations with rock-throwers that every sworn officer must undergo.
At the CBP National Training Center in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, Supervisory Agent Aaron Mims stands inside a surround green-screen, facing the image of a group of immigrants walking through a desert landscape. The leader picks up a rock and shouts tauntingly. Mims points his taser at the man.
“Hands up! Don’t move! Drop the rock!” he shouts before pulling the trigger on the taser. In the interactive scene, the immigrant falls to the ground and moans. “As an agency, lethal force is always the last resort,” Mims says after the training scenario is over.
Silence On Agent-Involved Shootings
This type of training is an attempt to avoid incidents like the death of Sergio Hernandez Guereca.
On June 7, 2010, the unarmed Mexican teenager was standing on the Juarez side of the international river when he was shot and killed by Border Patrol agent Jesus Mesa, who was on the U.S. side in El Paso, Texas. The agent maintained the boy was throwing rocks, though cellphone video contradicts this account. Neither CBP nor the Justice Department decided to take action against the officer.